Teens taken against their will. More horror stories from AGAPE Boarding School.

Agape Boarding School is one of four faith-based boarding schools in Cedar County, southwest Missouri. (Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star/TNS)

Julio Sandoval’s company, Safe Sound Secure Youth Ministries, told parents that he would help them get their “problem teens” back on track and offered transportation to get the children out of their homes, even from other states to AGAPE boarding school in Missouri. Lighthouse Christian Academy just changed the name of the company to Safe Sound Secure Youth Ministries, and just last week, Sandoval was arrested after a federal grand jury indicted him for violating a restraining order that was issued after an underage boy from California filed a complaint against his mother for handcuffing him and transporting him against his will, 27 hours to Agape Boarding School in southwest Missouri.

And it is not just this one complaint against the school, but other complaints have been made against AGAPE Boarding School. So much so that Missouri’s Attorney General Eric Schmitt just filed another writ in an effort to protect children at AGAPE. AG Schmitt filed for a writ asking a higher court to reverse the Cedar County Court’s decision from yesterday. Children at AGAPE are living in horror, and even the attorney general is having a difficult time working through the courts to protect them.

“Sandoval is also the former dean of Agape boarding school students and current principal of another unlicensed school, both in Missouri. Her goal with her trucking company is to be ‘a blessing to your home’ and Sandoval shares with parents the philosophy she says she uses with her own seven children: ‘I don’t care if you like me, I’m not raising you to please ME. I am raising you to please ME,’” Judy Thomas and Laura Bauer at the Kansas City Star report.

Representative Keri Ingle, a Lee’s Summit Democrat who kicked off hearings in Jefferson City on boarding schools and co-sponsored legislation that now regulates them stated, “That’s literally kidnapping. It would traumatize me a lot if they took me out of my house in the middle of the night, handcuffed me and threatened me and all that and then flew me to other states”.

“You have the dean of students running a shuttle service. These people are paid to kidnap children and traumatize them,” Aimee Groves, an alumna of two unlicensed female boarding schools in Missouri, told the Kansas City Star last year.

The Kansas City Star reports that Sandoval pled not guilty Wednesday in California federal court via video conference and was released on personal recognition bail. His next court date is scheduled for Oct. 5. Agape issued a statement through his attorney, John Schultz, regarding Sandoval’s accusation:

“Agape does not own, control or operate any transportation services, nor does it sponsor or endorse any transportation service. Agape was not aware of the California protective order, but as soon as Agape learned of it, discussions were held with the boy’s father to have him picked up in Agape. The boy was in Agape for seven days and then handed over to his father when he arrived.”

But Sandoval was Agape’s dean of students when he incorporated Lighthouse Christian Academy, his transportation company in June 2020 as a nonprofit with an address in Stockton, Missouri, according to state corporation documents. On January 12, Sandoval changed the name of his company to Safe Sound Secure Transport Agency. Sandoval uses two off-duty Cedar County Sheriff’s deputies to pick up youth from across the country. One of those agents, Robert Graves, has worked in Agape and is the son-in-law of its late founder, James Clemensen.

Missouri lawmakers have heard horror stories about boarding schools before, “When I was 13 years old, I was lifted out of bed in the middle of the night by strangers who threatened me with mechanical restraints if I resisted,” Hannah Kay wrote in her February 2021 testimony. “I didn’t know why or where I was going. My parents were instructed to ignore my pleas for help”. The Californian girl, who then weighed just 65 pounds, was taken to the Panhandle in Florida.

Ingle said several alumni shared with her their stories with trucking companies and how experiences still affect them today. She questions the legality of these methods. “That opens doors to human trafficking, to illegal detention, to kidnapping, to all those things. It’s horrifying. And if it’s kids with suspected behavioral problems or histories of trauma, that’s just going to exacerbate that”.

Niles Short was sleeping in his Chicago-area bedroom in October 1999 when two men kidnapped him from his bed around two in the morning. “These guys came into my room dressed in civilian clothes,” Short told The Star. “They handcuffed me with real handcuffs and threatened me with a taser. I went into survivor mode, told them I had to [go to the bathroom]. They made me leave the door open and watched me.”

“I was cornered in my room; it was shocking,” Short said. “I remember that day like it was yesterday. My sister had warned me about it, but I didn’t believe her, because Mom always threatened me with boarding school.” Short was transported to AGAPE about ten years before Sandolval got there.

Student after student recounted similar scenes in vivid detail. In the middle of the night. Scared. Not knowing where they were going. Not knowing when they could come home. The students are traumatized for life. The Star interviewed more than 70 Agape alumni. At least a dozen said the transport itself left them traumatized and unable to trust people. Five former boarding school students gave testimony to Missouri lawmakers detailing their experience with transportation companies.

David Patterson was escorted by off-duty police officers to end up in Agape on Father’s Day 2002. “I was escorted there by off-duty police officers,” he said in written testimony before the House Committee on Children and Families last year. “They woke me up at 4:30 in the morning telling me ‘we can do this by hook or by crook’ while being taught a couple of wives. They chose my clothes, made me wear a belt back in case they needed to handcuff myself, and made me wear a ‘carrying boot,’ a shoe they would put on if you had a broken foot and a walking cast”. “Upon arriving in Agape, I was searched naked in a room full of grown men that I had never seen before and then taken to have my head shaved,” he said. “I was held several times for not conforming and submitting to the strange and often peculiar interpretations of the school Bible”.

Colton Schrag was sent to Agape from his parents’ home in New Mexico. They sent him on Christmas Day the second time, when he was 14 years old. “Two guys woke me up at about four in the morning,” he told The Star, “they zipped me up and escorted me out … as if he were an inveterate criminal”.

On Labor Day 2017, 15 year old Gabe Miller arrived from St. Louis, after a car ride with two men from a trucking company who entered the 15-year-old’s room at six o’clock in the morning. “They pulled out some handcuffs and handcuffed me with my hands behind my back,” Miller told The Star. “They told me, ‘If you misbehave, we can chain your legs.’ I couldn’t even say goodbye to my grandparents”.

Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation while advocating for Uvea Spezza-Lopin whom at the age of 9-years-old, while in the Oregon foster care system, was flown outside of Oregon to a psychiatric residential treatment facility in Montana, “There, she was regularly sedated, restrained and locked in a seclusion room”, said Lauren Dake, a reporter that has been investigating the case since she learned of it.

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Oregon lawmakers passed a bill that went into effect earlier this year to strictly regulate trucking companies. It was the first state to adopt such legislation. It requires businesses that provide safe transportation services in order to enroll a child in a residential program to be licensed as a “Child Care Agency” (CCA) in the state. Companies must also meet all the requirements of such an agency. That includes being incorporated in and obeying the state’s policies of restriction and isolation. All upside down, back, and mechanical restraints—including hoods, bandages, and handcuffs—are prohibited. So are the “infliction of pain” and ridicule of young people.

Senator Blouin said, “The transportation experience is so shocking and creepy because it’s associated with home, your safe place. and so, your ability to trust, like, ‘Who do I trust? How do I know I’m safe? I can’t be safe at home. The people who are supposed to protect me are watching this happen to me.’ You can’t get over that. It’s trauma on many levels”.

What Sandoval’s company is accused of doing to the Fresno teen is illegal in Oregon for a lot of reasons,” Gelser Blouin said. “However, I think what’s interesting about this case is the way these places make their activities legal. The contracts that parents sign with the company give them the right to basically abuse their children. What made this illegal with this kid, and that’s the frustrating thing, is that it wasn’t really the transportation, it was the restraining order”. The mother had no authority to delegate transportation, Gelser Blouin said while also arguing that the transportation itself is wrong.

“You’re taking the children and you’re unintentionally moving them across the borders of the state to make a profit. What happened to that child was and should be illegal. It’s assault, it’s abuse and it’s imprisonment, but what’s absurd is that the only reason it was a crime was because his mother signed the papers”. If his father had signed the transport papers, Gelser Blouin said, exactly the same thing would have happened to the boy and it would not have been a crime.

As for Agape, Gelser Blouin said she is familiar with the school and the abuse allegations. “I don’t know if there’s anyone who hasn’t heard of Agape,” he said. “I think it’s a national embarrassment for the state of Missouri. There is no reason for it to be open. It is a demonstration of corrupt politics and clearly shows a disregard for the welfare of children. The evidence couldn’t be clearer.”

Brett Harper explained how he was traumatized for life after his adoptive father had him picked up by police and taken to AGAPE in 1999. He was there until 2003. Last year, he told the Oregon Senate Committee on Human Services, Mental Health and Recovery, chaired by Gelser Blouin about his experience being transferred to boarding school in southwest Missouri. His father, who was a probation officer in Oregon had “two men came out of the bathroom and showed me these badges,” Harper said. “They said they were here to take me to boarding school and that I could go the easy way or the hard way. They informed me that they had been hired by my father”. Harper said he chose the “easy way” and that his father apologized and told him he was going to boarding school “that would help me straighten out my attitude and be right with God”. “Transportation itself, while not overly violent, is traumatic enough that I still have night terrors to this day, at age 35, and this was 21 years ago,” Harper testified. “Most of the people who are transported to residential treatment centers, boarding schools, nature camps … They have night terrors, some for the rest of their lives.””I’ve talked to survivors who have had night terrors being transported 30 years later.”

Temira Lital, a mental health professional who was taken to boarding school by carriers as a teenager, also testified in support of the legislation. “We’re talking about the act known as teen transportation. It’s not transportation. It is a licensed kidnapping. I say that as a therapist and as a survivor. Imagine being torn from your own bed, almost naked, by strangers of the opposite sex. For many years, I slept with my bed in front of my door. I slept with a knife under my pillow. She slept with her clothes on, ready to flee and live on the street rather than suffer this again. Transporting teenagers almost destroyed my life”.

Gelser Blouin said, “I think it should be illegal, period. I don’t see any world in which this is appropriate. We wouldn’t do it to adults”.

Story translated from,  ‘Un secuestro literal’: adolescentes son llevados contra su voluntad a internados en EEUU, By Judy L. Thomas y Laura Bauer, The Kansas City Star.

Minding Hearts is building advocacy and peer support groups in each state.  The groups are created to raise awareness, educate, and advocate for those that might not otherwise be heard. We are here for encouragement, education, and support.

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